Obama and State Aggression Acting in Violation of Libertarian Principles


The recent election of Barack Obama was certainly an historic moment for the United States, but for those who carry an affinity for the concept of freedom, its symbolism is rather disheartening. While the majority of libertarians (even at more traditionally mainstream outlets such as Reason Magazine) rightly preferred Obama to that neocon sycophant, John McCain, this election witnessed the triumph of a man who campaigned on the promise of a benevolent activist government. From the libertarian perspective, there are scant words in the English language more frightening to emanate from a politician’s mouth.

Yes, Obama’s political character of spirited statism poses some major problems for the cause of liberty. The state is, by definition, a coercive entity that operates through the use of force; its supposed benevolence is undermined by its history of cruelty and disruption of the natural social order. To place one’s trust in the state is to the ignore the context by which it maintains and asserts its full authority. Furthermore, the use of compulsion is in clear violation of one of the foundational principles of natural-rights libertarianism, the non-aggression axiom. Murray Rothbard, the standard-bearer of 20th century market anarchism, went as far as to cast the it as the sine qua non of libertarian theory. To summarize the spirit of it briefly, the non-aggression principle dictates that initiatory force enacted against another is fundamentally wrong, and should be opposed by any libertarian worth his salt.

While any action by the U.S. government rests on the use of coercive authority drawn from the collection of taxes (or similar means), it stands to reason that there are different degrees of force, with the act of warfare being one of the most grotesque expressions of the state’s violent nature. Obama’s willingness to use this initiatory force abroad to “secure our freedoms” violates any interpretation of non-aggression principle. His foreign policy is that of the vulgar authoritarian, marked by interventionism and maintenance of American hegemony abroad. Aside from his calls for increasing military presence in Afghanistan, Obama has made veiled threats toward Pakistan and Russia, with explicit ones directed at Iran (“Afghanistan Urgent”; Holland, “Tough Talk”; Dreyfuss, “Rise and Mcfaul”; Newbart “Iran Threatens”). Exacerbating this potential for the immiseration of millions under America’s iron fist, youth support is more feverish for the incoming president than any time since the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The frightening implications that follow from this are numerous: chief among them is that many Americans will be far more receptive to proposals toward the doctrine of war under an Obama administration, acting as willing sheep for the American empire.

Of course, the use of coercive initiatory force is a far cry from the principles upon which liberalism stands, but this fact doesn’t deter Obama, who manages to get everything backwards in the following:

The Founders recognized that there were seeds of anarchy in the idea of individual freedom, an intoxicating danger in the idea of equality, for if everyone is truly free, without the constraints of birth or rank or an inherited social order – if my notion of faith is no better or worse than yours, and my notions of truth and goodness and beauty are as true and good and beautiful as yours – then how can we ever hope to form a society that coheres? (86-87)

There certainly is anarchy in the notion of individual freedom, since liberty taken to its logical conclusion can only result in the rejection of all rulers, but the wording in the above passage clearly intends to display lawlessness as the inevitable result of “too much” freedom. Why is this so? Without the power structure that enables the consistent exploitation of others, alternative orders would necessarily and spontaneously develop, springing from the innate nature of mankind. Yet if this nature is savage and inclined toward brutality as described by Thomas Hobbes, why would it be any more logical to support a system that feeds into it by further empowering the strong through political means? Fortunately, I do not believe that the only thing that prevents you from killing your neighbor is the threat of retaliatory force, but the anarchists have always maintained society has the right to protect the greater community, if necessary.

Regardless, Obama’s negative view of humanity’s unfettered potential is further evidenced by his abject rejection of social equality, or the idea that people should be treated without deference to societal status. In fact, Obama’s writing (see above) and recent repudiation of his supposed left-wing sympathies indicate that his so-called progressivism is merely concealed communitarianism (1). His acceptance or indifference toward a concrete, hierarchical social order combined with the stated willingness to use force stands in dark contrast to Lockean-based liberalism or any of its derivatives.

His economic proposals are similarly opposed to the libertarian preference for decentralization. While it is true that his short-term plans were superior to those of McCain in that it certainly isn’t any less “laissez-faire” to remedy the accumulated ills of massive state intervention via progressive taxation than to maintain the status quo, Obama continues to fill his staff with Wall Street insiders in a desperate attempt to maintain corporate capitalism through increased state power at the expense of the American citizenry (Pryzbyla “Obama Embrace”). As such, his repeated appeals to the wisdom of the free market (undoubtedly to court the distinct American individualist character) are exposed as nothing more than a sham. Rather, his policy of maintaining Keynesian principles fails to recognize that the system was very nearly designed to collapse at some indeterminable point in the future (hint: the solution to over-accumulation is not more accumulation) due to its neglect to take into account long-term effects. After all, according to the famed economist John Maynard Keynes himself, “In the long-run we’re all dead.” Well, we’re fast approaching the long run, and the living seem to prove an exception to Keynes’ rule.

Whether its his apparent willingness to use force so as to violate the non-aggression principle, his acceptance of the justice of an inherited social inequality, or his clinging to eroding state-supported economic theories, there exists is a clear separation between the notion of liberty and the plans of Barack Obama. While we may celebrate this election as a representation of America overcoming the obstacle of lingering bigotry, there is nothing about an Obama administration to get libertarians optimistic for the scaled reduction of the hypertrophic state. That change will have to arise from external sources acting in opposition to the government’s desires.

Works Cited

Dreyfuss, Robert. “The Rise and McFaul of Obama’s Russia Policy.” The Nation. 2 Jul. 2008 23 Nov. 2008 <http://www.thenation.com/blogs/dreyfuss/334120>.

Holland, Steve. “Tough Talk on Pakistan from Obama,” Reuters. 1 Aug. 2008 23 Nov. 2008 <http://www.reuters.com/article/domesticNews/idUSN0132206420070801>.

Obama, Barack. The Audacity of Hope. Crown, 2006.

“Obama Calls Situation in Afghanistan Urgent.” CNN. 21 Jul. 2008 23 Nov. 2008 <http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/07/20/obama.afghanistan/>.

Newbart, Dave. “Obama: Iran Threatens All of Us.” Chicago Sun-Times. 3 Mar. 2007 23 Nov. 2008 <http://www.suntimes.com/news/politics/281249,CST-NWS-OBAMA03.article>.

Pryzbyla, Heidi. “Obama Embrace of Wall Street Insiders Points to Politic Reform.” Yahoo News. 19 Nov. 2008 23 Nov. 2008 <http://news.yahoo.com/s/bloomberg/20081119/ pl_bloomberg/awsz2kuxdtiu>.

“Who’s Getting your Vote?” Reason Online. 29 Oct. 2008. 19 Nov. 2008 <http://www.reason.com/news/show/129640.html>.


(1) While nearly every presidential candidate over the last century has supposedly “moved to the center” in order appeal to the undecided moderates, the majority of Obama’s shift has been in the general class of executive power. This is an area where authority figures are unlikely to retract their campaign themes.

Matthew Ignal (’11) is a History major at University of Connecticut.


Note: Homepage thumbnail taken from ~iloveguns’s deviantART.

8 thoughts on “Obama and State Aggression Acting in Violation of Libertarian Principles

  1. neocon sycophant? really?

    i’m definitely no mccain supporter, but i believe we can keep discourse civil.

    and i suppose you would prefer ron paul?

    the solution is not no government, rather, a more effective government which is what the presidential candidates were trying to campaign on

  2. If there ever was a time, in our lifetimes, when there is a need for hyperactive, aka, hypertrophic, government, the time is now.

    The move to liberate markets from government regulation got Wall Street, particularly Citigroup, where it is today. See the effects of Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act.

    What’s worrisome is Robert Rubin is the thread through all this and now he again becomes a shadow secretary of the treasury, resuscitator of Wall Street and economic adviser, without portfolio.

    That said, all the libertarians in the private sector, from financial institutions to manufacturers, are aghast at what they have wrought. And begging for hypertrophic governance.

    Let’s just hope it’s judicious and effective.


  3. J,

    Sorry. It’s my writing style. However, McCain has been doing their bidding for quite some time. And I’m pretty sure that the man isn’t a true neocon since he was never a communist 😉

    As for Ron Paul, I’m pretty neutral. His policies are certainly better, (except on social issues) but I’m kind of hoping for a fall of the U.S. empire in the next couple of decades.


    Jacob Weisberg, writing for Newsweek, made a similar charge. At any rate, the “deregulation” (or as the Republicans call it, “regulation”) of markets was decidedly un-libertarian, since it occurred within the broader context of state capitalism.

    So the passage of the GBLA may have induced “competition,” but that competition acted as welfare for the largest American firms, and it’s going to set us up for a harder fall in the future. A contextual approach to libertarianism favored by the radicals would not involve removing corporate shackles, but the ground upon which they stand.

    Personally, I find the charges on the left and right to be missing the issue in their attempts to score cheap political points. The true cause IMO, as always, is systemic. State capitalism enables large firms to thrive in the first place, allowing corporations to dispose of their surplus product (a certainty with large firms) above market price. Further demand-side stimulation enables further overproduction, leading to a crisis of ever-increasing overaccumulation. Foreign wars (Korea, Vietnam) and huge public works (highway boom, NASA) did their job yet increased the removal of corporations from their consumers, leading to more overaccumulation. Finally, attention was turned to stocks, securities, and all that fun stuff. We’re now seeing a failure of that.

    It’s a bit more complicated than I just described, but the production crises of the 1890s as described by J.A. Hobson and J.M. Keynes have striking parallels in the system they set up. The only difference is that they perpetuated the cycle, with a little help from World War Two and American economic imperialism. My guess is that the system still has a few more years left in it before the whole financial edifice just crumbles.

  4. First, this seems more like a regurgitation of some theory than an analysis of anything Obama has said, or could reasonably be said to have meant to have said. You make a few loose references to his speeches and then make a completely unsupported leap to the conclusion that he’s violating the non-aggression principle. I’d suggest taking a closer look at what he’s saying, and at what policies he means to implement behind those words, before making such a conclusion. What about self-defense? What about defending allies? What about WWII and the need to intervene? You need to explain conclusions by reference to facts and propositions, and distinguish from other situations.

    Second, as a general comment, your idea of freedom seems diminished in comparison to the full-bodied freedom that can be amply seen in the course of American history. Freedom hasn’t only meant what libertarians say. In the new deal, freedom meant the goal of being free from hunger and want. During the civil rights era, freedom meant being free to engage a public discourse through protest and other means in seeking equality. In these and other instances, the meaning of freedom seems to intersect with the public sphere, and obtains at least in part through the realization of political objectives necessarily achieved through government action, or reaction.

    Third, even supposing the libertarian idea of freedom, non-aggression doesn’t necessarily follow. What do you do with oppressive regimes that completely violate the libertarian concept of freedom? What do you do when these regimes not only violate political and individual liberty, they cause mass death of their subjects? How is freedom preserved by letting this happen? You at least need to explain why before drawing a conclusion simply because some guy with a theory said initiatory force violates libertarianism.

  5. Dave,

    (1)The point is that we cannot know exactly what Obama is going to do. However, it is my opinion that Obama’s opposition to the invasion of Iraq is due to the fact that it wasn’t a wise use of force. Afghanistan, on the other hand, qualifies for Obama. The nonaggression principle only applies to initiatory force. Self-defense, response, etc. are perfectly acceptable uses of force. Applying it to history was beyond the scope of my paper, but I’d say something like this:

    Japan and America are both responsible for aggression (economic and military) in World War Two in the Pacific. In Europe, Germany takes the greatest share of the blame, but not all of it.

    Of course, you can apply it yourself based on your understanding of history.

    (2)There is a ton of stuff out there on negative (freedom from) and positive liberty (freedom to), and the libertarian movement is divided on how to go about it. Personally, I think that the fulfillment of negative liberty will mostly bring about positive liberty. Unfortunately, there is never a guarantee of the latter.

    (3)Good questions, all. But nonaggression (as I understand it) follows from natural rights libertarianism, not the egoism of Max Stirner and Ben Tucker nor the utilitarianism of David Friedman. So the NAP flows from the libertarian concept of rights, not the desire to reduce or abolish government. If the connection between rights, self-ownership, and coercion was lacking, I apologize, but there really isn’t much to it: I am the rightful owner of my body, coercing me violates my right to self-ownership. The only time someone can justifiably violate my rights (equal proportion, of course) is if I have violated someone else’s.

    Now, a regime that is oppressing me is committing aggression, so I have a right to respond with (equal/just) force. But some despotic regime 5,000 miles away? Or a friend being coerced? I would argue that nonaggression doesn’t just apply to force being against you, but to humanity in general. In fact, I’ve recently become aware of anarchists in France supporting the war in Iraq, strange as it may sound.

  6. I have one fundamental problem with the Principle of Nonaggression. What constitutes an initiation of hostilities? I believe that mounting a sufficient threat towards someone can, in itself, be an initiation of hostility. If, for example, someone points a gun at my head, I will not wait for them to pull the trigger before I act, nor should I.

    As you explore this further, the Principle of Nonaggression, which initially seems to be a good basis for judging the “morality” of at least government action, soon begins to look pretty ambiguous to the point of being almost meaningless.

    For example, is harboring terrorists sworn to destroy the United States an aggressive act towards us? If so, does that harboring have to be deliberate? What about arming those terrorists? Can the aggression be economic? If so, what kinds of economic action are sufficiently “aggressive” to be considered grounds for retaliatory action?

    While debating these ideas, we also have to keep in mind that we don’t live in a utopia of libertarian states. Many states will not follow any principles besides self-interest, and when we apply principles to ourselves, we have to apply them in such away that allows us to exist beside these less benevolent states.

  7. Good questions, Mike. Unfortunately, I don’t have a clear-cut answer. Let me quickly explain:

    As a principle of justice, I think the nonaggression axiom holds up pretty well. It seems wrong to initiate force and it generally has bad consequences, but responding to violence (or threats of violence) is different; clearly, some qualifications are needed. I would posit that defensive force should not exceed that of the initial threat, with mere retaliation being denied.

    So, while all of your examples fall under the heading of aggression, I’m not sure they are grounds for military response. The U.S. has continually aggressed to contribute to terrorist resentment (and thus occupies a special place for initiation), so the proper response would appear to be ending the aggression instead of perpetuating it. This appears to more in tune with the nonaggression principle than a preemptive preventive strike.

  8. But, really, I don’t think “the Bush Doctrine” for confronting terror necessarily contradicts the nonaggression axiom. Basically, in practice, I don’t think there are many examples where people violate it in a clear cut manner. People generally agree on the idea that no one should start fighting with someone unprovoked, but provocation is kind of in the eye of the beholder. Without further expansion, it doesn’t do very much to prevent unwise or even seemingly unjust policies.

    The issue with the Bush administrations foreign policy seems to be more with the tendency to use force often rather than with the tendency to use force unprovoked, since I think a strong case can be made that both Afghanistan and Iraq did, in some way or another, aggress against the US.

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